Thunder Bay [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (12th July 2019).
The Film

Louisiana, 1947: Smooth-talking engineer Steve Martin (Vertigo's James Stewart) and Johnny Gambi (Foxfire's Dan Duryea) arrive at Port Felicity with a trunk of "jewels" for a meeting with an investor, hustling fisherman Dominique Rigaud (The Creature from the Black Lagoon's Antonio Moreno) into letting them rent his boat for the princely sum of fifty dollars despite the warnings of his daughter Stella (Red River's Joanne Dru) who has returned home from her attempt at conquering the big city where she has met plenty of men like Martin and Gambi. The investor turns out to be oil company present Kermit MacDonald (The Killing's Jay C. Flippen) who has already sunk two-hundred thousand dollars into a lease on offshore property for drilling and must either renew the lease at cost or take the loss, the latter advised by his secretary Rawlings (M*A*S*H's Harry Morgan). The "jewels" are for drill bits and Martin convinces MacDonald to risk a million dollar investment to erect an offshore rig in water forty-eight feet deep to drill another eight hundred feet down to find oil he knows is there for the taking before the lease runs out. Already in danger of losing his position, MacDonald takes the proposition which extends to putting up the fifty dollars owed to Rigaud, chiding college-educated Rawlings for never having had to talk himself out of a jam. Stella, bristling at Gambi's flirtation with her engaged younger sister Francesca (The Hypnotic Eye's Marcia Henderson), puts Martin off renting Dominique's boat again. Big man Teche Bossier (Barbarosa's Gilbert Roland) thinks he has formed a profitable partnership with the oil workers; that is, until they set off charges in the water that he and the rest of the fisherman in the town fear will kill all of the shrimp. While Bossier and his partner – Francesca's fiancι Philippe (Robert Monet) – form a mob when Dominique's peaceful attempt at stopping them with a cease and desist from the Department of Wildlife arrives too late. As it becomes clear that this is going to be a bad fishing year, the locals become more resentful of Martin, Gambi, and the oil workers brought in by MacDonald. A brawl between the oil workers and the fisherman leading to the arrest of the former leaves Martin alone on the newly-erected but untested rig with a hurricane due in the night. When Francesca reveals that she hates Philippe and intends to marry Gambi and leave town, Stella travels out to the rig to plead with Martin to fire his partner but Martin thinks that she is projecting her own bitter romantic experience not only on Gambi but on himself (and solves it with a kiss). Unfortunately, they will have to weather more than the storm when Bossier reluctantly takes drunk and jealous Philippe out to the rig with his plan to blow it up and blame its destruction on the storm. One of eight collaborations between Stewart and director Anthony Mann – which also included the war film Strategic Air Command, the western Winchester '73, and the biopic The Glenn Miller Story – Thunder Bay is a rather formulaic drama but for some novelties like the casting of Duryea as a sympathetic lovelorn character and etching Roland's boastful Bossier in finer shades than expected. The romantic subplot is as obligatory as Martin's being not in it for the money but for the challenge of taking no nature, but the film does express certain ecological concerns while it is only pro-oil drilling in the sense of the relentless force of progress (Martin argues that if no him then someone else will do it). The structuring of conflicts are by-the-numbers and the wrap-up a bit too tidy, but there is still much to savor from the charisma of Stewart and Dru along with supporting turns from Duryea and Henderson, the scale of the production, a typically lush score by Universal regular Frank Skinner (Harvey), and the hints of what was once ravishing Technicolor by William H. Daniels (How the West Was Won), but it is probably best enjoyed as part of the Stewart-Mann collaborations than on its own.


Although lensed in the Academy ratio (1.37:1) in 1952 with no future-proofing for widescreen, Thunder Bay was selected by Universal-International as one of their new widescreen (1.85:1), 3-channel stereophonic sound releases of 1953. The 1992 MCA/Universal VHS and the U.K. DVD release from Optimum were fullscreen but the German DVD from KSM – and presumably the DVD inside the James Stewart Screen Legend Collection – which also included Shenandoah, The Glenn Miller Story, You Gotta Stay Happy, and Next Time We Love – as well as the Universal Vault Series DVD-R are the widescreen version. Kino Lorber's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC widescreen Blu-ray has 1.66:1 opening credits and end title card but the bulk of the presentation is framed at 1.85:1. Although it is not the original aspect ratio and was not framed for it, the widescreen framing never seems overly tight vertically apart from a couple dramatic close-ups of Stewart lurching forward where there seems to be a lot of dead space above his head and not enough below. The real issue with Kino Lorber's disc is Universal's master. Yes, it's high definition but there is a sickly yellow bias and the three-strip Technicolor alignment is off, with green highlights rimming the edges of white clothing and even some fuchsia punk highlights in the blond hair of some of the oil workers in a couple long shots like the scene in which they arrive on the back of a truck. The results during the brightest scenes can be painful on the eyes while the tinted night shots range from blue gray to occasionally murky. Surely a Mann-Stewart title deserves to look as good as a Universal-International Technicolor title like Foxfire.


Although released to limited venues in 3-channel directional stereophonic sound, Thunder Bay has largely been seen in mono. While Kino Lorber has provided no information as to whether their Dolby TrueHD 3.0 stereo track comes from original materials or is a reconstruction, the track generally seems less full-bodied than the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono option. The 3.0 is generally anchored toward the center, especially when music and dialogue overlap while the hurricane provides some separation but nothing like the more directional mixes to come in the mid-to-late fifties. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.


Extras start off with an audio commentary by film historian Toby Roan which is typically highly informative yet in this case a frustrating listen. He discusses the Stewart and Mann collaborative relationship, information on the widescreen framing imposed on the film and the stereo sound (along with Mann's and Stewart's contrasting statements about the former), as well as the cast and some production stories; however, Roan here gets so bogged down in detail from a history of oil drilling and a discussion of widescreen that reaches all the way back to the silent Magnascope process and various 65mm releases from that period to long but informative overviews of each of the stars and loving profiles of the supporting actors as they appear that pushes back other topic well past the hour mark. One interesting story from the film's release was that the large screen to be used for the film's premiere screening in Louisiana was lost on the trip down there so the film was shown with stereophonic sound but in the Academy ratio. The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (2:15) and trailers for other Kino Lorber releases (including the Mann-Stewart western Bend of the River).


While Thunder Bay hails from James Stewart's celebrated period of collaboration with director Anthony Mann, it is probably best enjoyed in that context than on its own terms.


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